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U of I nuclear professor encouraged by record setting fusion test

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(The Center Square) – A University of Illinois professor says a record-breaking fusion test is a positive step toward the country’s quest for cleaner energy.

Nuclear fusion is the same process that powers the sun, and is widely considered as the holy grail of clean energy.

Using the Joint European Torus (JET), a huge, donut-shaped machine known as a tokamak, scientists in Great Britain were able to sustain a record amount of fusion energy for five seconds, enough to power around 12,000 homes.

The tokamak is lined with powerful magnets that hold the fuel in. The heat is then harnessed and used to produce electricity.

“This is a step in the direction of getting this amount of power continuously,” said Lorenzo Vergari, assistant professor of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at the U of I Grainger College of Engineering. “We’re not quite there yet, but it’s impressive to me that such a large amount of power was generated.”

Experts have worked for decades to master the highly complex process of fusion, and if they achieve their goal, fusion could generate enormous amounts of energy with a very small amount of fuel.

Illinois recently lifted a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors, paving the way for the use of small modular reactors, or SMRs. That technology appears to be years away but there may have been a breakthrough.

A UK company using Electron-Beam Welding was able to weld a full-size nuclear reactor vessel in under 24 hours instead of the usual 12 months.

Vergari said there are numerous small companies trying to develop clean energy technology.

“That will increase the competition of the technology but at the same time I think fostering the speed at which we get a functional fusion reactor,” said Vergari.

JET was decommissioned last December, but the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a massive tokamak in France, is scheduled to start up in 2025.